9 min read

Utopia Now

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias."
- Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

Utopia is defined as an "imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect". It should be clear how closely this concept aligns with our objective of creating a unified vision of an ideal future. And yet, to describe our mission as envisioning utopia would frequently be met with eye-rolls and derision in today's society. The concept of utopia has gone so far out of fashion many deem it distasteful. I believe that's a mistake. In this article I'll discuss how we aren't far away from the conditions necessary for a realistic utopia, and that greater discussion of utopia - of an ideal future vision - will help us overcome our biggest barrier to achieving it: societal cohesion.


Once upon a time it was popular to debate ideal future visions for society. Sir Thomas More coined the term 'Utopia' for his book of that title in 1516, in which he asks a traveller to recount every detail of his trip to the land of utopia, appreciating everything he might learn from such a story. The quote from Oscar Wilde that opened the article was from 1891, and was described as "typical of the attitude towards utopianism that existed among the avant garde" at the time by writer George Woodcock in his journal article Utopias in Negative.

By the 1950's however, sentiment had shifted completely. 1932 saw the publication of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, possibly the greatest example of the utopia-turned-dystopia sub-genre, and according to Woodcock, writers of the 1950s would be more likely to agree with what Nicholas Berdiaeff wrote in the foreword to the book: "perhaps a new century is beginning, a century in which the intellectuals and the cultivated class will dream of the means of avoiding utopias and of returning to a non-utopian society, less 'perfect' and more free."

Negative sentiment

This duality in utopianism has been there from its inception. Thomas More in part coined the term as a pun. Utopia translates from Greek as 'no place' or 'impossible place' but is identical in pronunciation to 'Eutopia' which means 'good place'. He implied that an ideal world is an impossible concept, and has been at the heart of utopian debate ever since. The possibility of an ideal world says as much about the relative optimism of the person in the debate as it does about any evidence to its obtainability. It seems the pessimist view of utopianism is what has endured.

The adjective "utopian" is now used so frequently in a negative way that it is just as commonly used to discredit ideas as too advanced, too optimistic or unrealistic and impossible to realise. Far from people in the 20th century becoming sticklers for the true greek meaning of words, there were other forces at play reinforcing the negative interpretation. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of 'utopian communities' primarily in the United States, a tradition that evolved into communes and cults. Those left in the mainstream were sceptical of these communities, in large part as they offered greater freedoms than the strict religious societies of the time. It also meant they revelled in their ultimate failing, and those that fostered evil under a utopian veneer - for example the Colonia Dignidad cult in Chile - were highlighted to discredit the entire utopianist movement and way of thinking. Utopianism - dreaming of an ideal, and therefore superior, future - is an inherently anarchist idea, in that it must fight against the status quo. It is therefore unsurprising that the ruling classes, be they religious or political elites depending on the era, sought to undermine the practice.

If that is how the sentiment toward utopianism was turned negative, the force keeping it that way appears to be the distance we find ourselves from any utopian ideals. Looking at the homepage of the BBC in England today (7/12/22) shows headlines of economic turmoil, government corruption, worker exploitation, and someone throwing an egg at the king despite the country having an egg shortage. This malaise is manifesting as a helplessness and lack of desire to dream as it does seem so unrealistic. The idea of utopia seems laughable.

Overcoming the bias

There are two things I think we ought to do to overcome this negative bias - popularise and normalise the term eutopia to replace utopia, and clarify that we define eutopia as a direction rather than an end state. Being clear that our vision of eutopia is dynamic will overcome the critique of utopianism that we can never know for sure what 'ideal' looks like. And yes, the name change is sleight of hand - they mean effectively the same thing - but the term utopia now has so much negative association that it is easier to replace it than it is to shift public opinion. The field needs a rebrand. Sadly the two words sound identical, so we'll have to prioritise the written form for the time being. And we should start this rebrand now, as we might not be too far from eutopia.

The necessary conditions for eutopia

One way to forecast how far we are from a state of the world is to identify the set of things that need to be true for that state to be possible, and analyse our progress towards each component, often a much easier task. I believe there are three: technological capability, energy abundance, and societal cohesion. If we had the tech to ensure we never needed to work and abundant energy such that we could allocate resources to whatever we like, we could live in whatever world we as society choose.

Technological capability

A world where someone has to unblock sewage systems would unlikely be defined as eutopian, particularly not by the person whose arm is in the pipe. While certain visions of utopia have challenged this assumption - through a belief in community fulfilment through the sharing of undesirable tasks - I think it is fair to say that a world without undesirable tasks is superior and I believe we can be ambitious in our vision. And for our visioning purposes we are at this technological frontier by definition. Our envisioned future is a post-work world with ubiquitous, human-level AI taking care of our needs and solving our problems. With this technology, which experts currently believe has a 50% chance of being developed by 2040, we will have one condition necessary for eutopia.

Energy abundance

Energy is the global resource. We can't solve world hunger, for example, without enough food, and therefore without enough energy, and it's hard to imagine a eutopia where anyone goes hungry. It's also vital for the sustainability of the eutopia. It's possible to imagine a eutopian world that has high yet not unlimited energy that falls apart as soon as those accustomed with paradise have to choose between various desires as there is insufficient resource for all of them.
How far are we from this goal? It is hard to say, and I'll be dedicating some focus to precisely this topic sometime soon. One indication that it might not be too far away? Even with our current solar power technology, the sun provides 35,000x the amount of energy we currently consume as a planet. That is, we could cover 14,500 sqkm (roughly one Timor-Leste, for comparison) with solar panels and have sustainable, abundant energy for our existing society.

Societal cohesion

To achieve eutopia, we have to agree on what eutopia is. Eutopia is not in the eye of the beholder, it should be as close to objectively true as possible. A eutopia for some and not for others is not a eutopia. Even a 'democratically determined' eutopia would unlikely reach the bar when 49% of the population could disagree with the statement. A practical difference between eutopia and utopia may arise here. The set of things that can be universally agreed as comprising eutopia may not be comprehensive, as they theoretically ought to be for a utopia, yet would be sufficient to determine a eutopian society. A realistic near-perfect.

It is quite easy to imagine a world where the first two conditions are met yet is far from eutopian without such cohesion. In fact, a high-tech, energy-abundant world without societal cohesion could result in power battles with unimaginable negative consequences. This is a vitally important component. It could also preclude the other two, given that eutopia is defined by the people who live in it through this process of social cohesion. For example we would not need 'abundant energy' if we collectively lowered our energy demands. This might not meet everyones' definition of utopia, but many would suggest the environmentalist goal of reducing fossil fuel use to zero - if living standards could be equalised - would represent a eutopian ideal. We would not need post-work technological capability if we collectively agreed to lower our demands of work and contribute to all 'necessary' work, a la Le Guin's eutopian vision in The Dispossessed. Again, this might not meet everyones' definition of utopia, but it could make for a significantly more desirable world than the one we currently live in.

Sadly, we are far from the necessary societal cohesion, and are trending in the wrong direction. While very difficult to define and measure this concept, there are general principles of eutopia that we can look to to draw this conclusion. The first is democracy. For the reasons discussed above, eutopias must have alignment with the will of the population. The exact form of democracy is not important here, for our purposes we just need to know where we sit on a scale from democracy to authoritarianism - where the general population do not get a say in the outcome of the society. The Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a measure of the state of democracy in 167 countries and territories, has been falling consistently every year since its peak in 2014. The fall is consistent across all seven regions in the index and, most frighteningly, is accelerating. The other principle is one of global cooperation. We have discussed how a global society is likely a component of our ideal future vision, and I'd argue that it's a necessary component of a eutopia for the same argument as the democratic case - it wouldn't be a eutopia if one continent, for example, didn't believe it were. The KOF Globalisation Index has plateaued after fifty years of consistent growth, prompting the leading article on the website to be titled Is Globalisation at its End?.

Societal cohesion is clearly our biggest barrier to realising a eutopian vision, a limited version of which could be possible today and a full imagining not too far in our future. So how might we get there.

Discussing eutopia

I've discussed how I find it alarming that we don't have a coherent vision for the human race. You would never start an entrepreneurial endeavour without a vision of what you hope to achieve, and human society is the greatest entrepreneurial endeavour of all. Yet beyond having the coherent vision to hang on our global office wall and guide our thinking, it is the process of co-creating this vision that has the greatest potential. Co-creation of vision statements for organisational transformations is related to a greater likelihood of achieving the goals of the transformation, likely through increasing understanding, engagement, and motivation in those needed to help achieve it. While it is highly unlikely that the process and experience of co-developing a organisation vision statement would map directly to co-creating a vision statement for humanity, I hypothesise that a lot of the benefits would carry over. They certainly seem likely enough that experimenting with the possibility is a better strategy than our current approach of looking down on utopianism.

A conversation about utopia would move us closer to the global social cohesion that we have identified as necessary. It could catalyse the 'technological progress' on this dimension equivalent to the rapid progress we are making on energy abundance and human-level artificial intelligence. Rather than cannibalise our rich, unique cultures around the world, a global discussion of eutopia would show us all just how much we have in common, both in our current state but more so in our desired future. This could be one tool to help bring greater unity to an increasingly fractured and tribalistic global society.

Of course not everybody will agree on a shared vision of eutopia, but this is okay, and arguably preferential! Through this discourse we will identify any areas of objective preference - as the vast majority would describe our existing human rights, for example - and the methods needed to inform those who don't currently seem them as ideal. It will also identify areas where there is no objective ideal, leading to discussion of how competing ideas can co-exist in our eutopia. This discourse could spur individual behaviour change by sparking cognitive dissonance in individuals who realise that they currently act out of accordance with their eutopian value. For example, someone who currently protects their wealth and power may be convinced to give a lot of it up upon realising they value equality in eutopia.

It is this possibility of behaviour change that makes the discussion of eutopia such a vital part of our strategy for achieving it, given the huge possibility it provides for making necessary change today. Imagine how a greater discourse of eutopia could change politics. In theory, politics should be the arena in which we discuss future visions and work to move towards them. In practice, we can all appreciate we are far from that ideal. The manifestos of political parties, at least in the UK and the US where I am most familiar, deal in incremental change with little attention given to the ultimate goal of the party. I hypothesise that very few individuals engage in future visioning when voting or otherwise engaging in politics, anchored by the options they have available to think incrementally. There's a case to be made that the recent rise of populism was driven in part by the relevant political leaders presenting a radical vision of the future for the first time in decades. What could an engaged democracy look like with the electorate co-creating their vision of the future with governing leaders who help make it a reality? Could the mere act of discussing eutopia make people more thoughtful in the present, and make it a good - not impossible - future?

There are huge benefits from bringing eutopian discourse back to the cultural mainstream. Not only will we refine a collective vision of the future, we will likely feel more motivated to make it a reality through our personal actions and our political engagement. There is significant negative sentiment to overcome, but I'm confident that by rebranding to eutopianism and being clear that our vision is dynamic, we can shift sentiment back to being positive and hopeful. I'm excited that WFW? can be the community to catalyse this movement.

Please share your thoughts if you have any feedback on this article, or leave a comment below.